The Armenian parliament approved this week in the first reading a set of government-drafted legal amendments that would exempt them from property and land taxes.
The exemptions will apply to a list of 286 specific properties drawn up by the government. It includes not only churches and religious seminaries but also other residential buildings, charity institutions, shops and even a football stadium.
The National Assembly passed the amendments despite serious misgivings voiced by some of its members. They questioned the wisdom of extending tax breaks to non-religious sites owned by the church’s Mother See in Echmiadzin and dioceses in Armenia.
Father Vahram Melikian, the chief Mother See spokesman, defended the measure. “After all, those structures cater for our people,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) “The Church is not a private entrepreneur. The Church is a social structure that has existed for centuries and naturally has certain properties, churches, shrines, infrastructures used for those shrines.”
“There is nothing inappropriate about exempting the church from property tax because I think that in return the church brings quite a lot of other, non-material benefits to the Armenian people. It serves only the interests and the well-being of the people,” said Melikian.
The cleric also argued that despite legal requirements the Armenian authorities have not actually collected property and land taxes from the Apostolic Church since the Soviet collapse. “It is simply important to formalize this so that there are no problems in the future,” he said.
The Apostolic Church, which had made Armenia the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301, is the oldest institution uniting Armenians scattered around the world. More than 90 percent of them are believed to nominally belong to it.
While stipulating the separation of religion from the state, the Armenian constitution guarantees a privileged legal status for the church in view of its “exceptional mission in the spiritual life of the Armenian people” and the “maintenance of their national identity.”
Successive Armenian governments have sought to uphold that status by trying to limit the spread of non-traditional religious organizations in the country. The current government drafted controversial amendments to an Armenian law on religion for that purpose in 2009. They would make it a crime for such groups to proselytize on adherents of the Apostolic Church.
The proposed legislation was shelved last year after strong criticism voiced by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Religious minorities and human rights groups also expressed serious concern.